|Reviews for City of Death|
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|By:||Eric Luskin, Brighton, England|
|Date:||Wednesday 11 September 2002|
|Rating: || 10|
This is without a doubt one of the classics from the history of Doctor Who. Sterling performances from Tom and Lalla throughout the duration of the show - suitably set in the city of romance - Paris. What makes this story great is the superb work carried out by the whole Dr. Who team (even down to the extras, where Colin Murray and Nicky Skerten deliver a fine performance eating a romantic meal). This is without a doubt the highlight of Season 17.
|Paris has an ethos, ditto City of Death|
In beauty and finesse very few episodes of Doctor Who can rival City of Death, the most acclaimed serial of the Graham Williams era. Its beautiful image is attributed to the ravishing Parisian atmosphere with its elegant, pittoresque architecture, the large parks and vibrant areas. Although David Agnew, pseudonym for Douglas Adams, David Fisher and Graham Williams, is credited with its script, the contribution of the late Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, is the most important one since he himself always had the rights of the script and used many of its elements in his 1987 novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Douglas Adams, by setting this ingeniously crafted story in one of the most beautiful megacities in the world and by weaving a peerless scenario with a witty and at times humorous dialogue, authored a classic of televised science fiction, which thrills fans and non-fans alike.
The serial's irrelevant title belies its true scenario and misleads the viewer, who would think at first City of Death is a story of urban terror, a dystopian society for example or a horror story of a series of murders. The city itself, more specifically its environment, largely contributes to City of Death's success, pleases the viewer and isn't depicted as a seat of evil and corruption, so that I fail to understand what motivated Douglas Adams or David Fisher and Graham Williams to choose this irrelevant title, which reminds me of horror B-movies. Death and evil are in fact personified by Scaroth, the last member of the alien race of Jagaroth, who strives to travel back in time, 400 million years before the story's principal timeline and by preventing the destruction of his race restores it to life. If he succeeds, he will radically and tragically alter the course of human history and eliminate the entire human race. For this purpose he needs a special time machine and he plans to finance the project of this device's creation by stealing objects of art, including the very famous Mona Lisa from the Louvre museum. A most extravagant but sublime time travelling concept in the finest time travelling TV series ever. The exciting opening scene, in which we watch the spider shaped spaceship of the Jagaroth trying to take off from Earth's very eerie desert landscape and then exploding in the sky, sets the ground for a classic of the series. This scene warns us that a special episode has begun.
In the subsequent scene we are transferred in a totally different spacetime, with the Doctor and Romana perched on top of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, in the year 1979. Along with Leisure Hive and Paradise Towers, this is one of the very few times the time travellers are seen as tourists only arriving in a place as a part of their vacation and for relaxation and not for exploration or out of curiosity. The viewer identifies with them and becomes a tourist too in the world's most visited capital. The interaction between the well-dressed Romana and the carefree Doctor is described as heralding the romance between the actors Tom Baker and Lalla Ward (they eventually married only to get divorced a year and a half later). The two characters' chemistry is marvellous, they exchange several memorable lines and since vigorous and in high spirits seem to literally enjoy their stay in Paris.
On the other hand, we encounter another duo, Count Scarlioni (Scaroth) and his Countess, who belong among the series' great villains and stand out not because of their wickedness - the Master, Davros, the Sontarans, Sil and many others are more evil - but because of their glamour and humanness, which oppose the monstrosity of most villains. Though the Count is revealed to be an one-eyed green skinned creature, a Jagaroth in disguise, he is presented in his human form during a large part of the serial. Marcus Scarman in Pyramids of Mars, the mercenary Lytton in Resurrection of the Daleks, Ratcliffe in Remembrance of the Daleks and others have a human form too but, unlike Count Scarlioni, they function as servants carrying out the orders of their non-human master(s). In City of Death, the bad guys are human masters of themselves, give orders, whilst their den is a lavish, luxurious Parisian dwelling, a house and not a spaceship or true head-quarters or their natural residence. In their battle against the two villains aforementioned, the Doctor and Romana are assisted by the aloof and gutsy British private detective Duggan, one of the most memorable one-off characters in the history of the series and who is defined as a one-off companion. All five principal actors offer an excellent performance and their interaction serves as a model. City of Death features unique, peculiar characters with their own idiosyncrasy. Even Kerensky, Scaroth's ingenious scientist with very distinctive foreign accent, although not a major character manages to conserve himself in the viewer's memory.
City of Death is usually praised for its brilliant, witty dialogue. Although I confess the dialogue seems to exaggerate at times and becomes pretentious, it is worth the praises. This serial contains some of my favourite lines ever and I will mention some of them. While on the train, Romana asks where they are going. The Doctor asks, "Are you talking philosophically or geographically?" Romana says, "Philosophically" and the Time Lord replies "Then we're going to lunch". Afterwards, they go to a cafe and the Doctor says to Romana, "You and I exist in a special relationship to time, you know. Perpetual outsiders." and Romana tells him not to be so portentous. When they are heading for Louvre, the Doctor compliments its gallery by calling it "one of the greatest art galleries in the whole galaxy". In the second episode, when Kerensky claims he is the foremost scientist on temporal physics in the whole world, the Doctor mockingly replies "That is a small place when you think about the size of the universe". It is a pity that the series in general lacks an equivalent of Douglas Adams' ingenious sense of humour. Tom Baker's era however, which since the moment I started exploring the fascinating world of Doctor Who, I have been presuming it is the funniest of them all, was marked by comic elements. Episodes such as Robot, City of Death, to a lesser extent The Sun Makers justify this impression I have of the era of Tom Baker, who brought humour and a whimsical attitude in the Doctor and so even in grave stories, he usually offers us a comic relief.
While on top of the Eiffel Tower, the Doctor calls Paris a city with an ethos. I will paraphrase the Time Lord's statement and call City of Death a serial with an ethos, with a distinctive spirit. To label it a "science fiction adventure" wouldn't be accurate because it lacks essential features of a typical science fiction adventure. We are not exposed to battles nor to gunshots/explosions (the explosion of Jagaroth's spaceship excepted), we don't get a glimpse of the outer space, there's no violence (Duggan's fake punches on Kerensky and on the Count don't count) and inevitably there's not exactly action either! As it was pointed out in the third paragraph of this review, this is one of the very few times the Doctor is seen as a tourist. His role as a tourist is overshadowed when he is portrayed as an authentic time traveller because unlike in the vast majority of televised stories, the Doctor of City of Death twice travels in different spacetimes in his attempt to hinder the plans of the enemy. He doesn't remain fixed on one place/area in one timezone, like he does in Inside the Spaceship, Tenth Planet, Tomb of Cybermen, Happiness Patrol and in many other adventures, but maneuvres in three different spacetimes. So unusual an episode City of Death is, that even the location in which it was filmed is striking, transcending for the first time in the show's history the British frontiers and I strongly believe on this foreign atmosphere is grounded its uniqueness. Dudley Simpson's acclaimed and memorable incidental music (my favourite one so far, rivaled only by Paddy Kingsland's incidental music of Logopolis) is melodic and as if emanating from a soap opera, perfectly renders the elegance of this foreign atmosphere and the luxury of the villains' dwelling. Taking into account its distinctive spirit, City of Death could be described as a "humorous science fiction/fantasy soap opera of intrigue", a long but I reckon a truly accurate characterisation.
When it comes to the production values, they are excellent and the serial although it looks dated, that is old-fashioned, doesn't look cheap, of a low budget. The bizarre, deserted settings of prehistoric Earth are so superb that it saddens me they were used only a little, at the beginning and in the end, for about five minutes. Since it is set in the modern era the story doesn't feature many futuristic/science fiction elements. The few special effects used are to be praised, including Jagaroth's spider shaped spaceship and to a lesser extent Scaroth's monstrous face, which although it betrays its true nature, that of a mask, is usually not laughed at.
City of Death's brilliance is by no means spared from imperfection, this time imputed to the severe plot vaguenesses. How did the Doctor know the Countess, a woman he is not acquainted with at all, wore a powerful bracelet of a supernatural function around her wrist and why did he take (steal) it? The Doctor at first seems to grasp the bracelet unwillingly while fainting, but the Countess doesn't react immediately to this incident, to this theft. She doesn't immediately notice that her precious bracelet she was wearing has been clutched, stolen! Why do the cracks in the fabric of time affect only the Doctor and Romana? The manner in which they accidentally get mingled in the affairs of the Count and the Countess, the adventure hook, is flawed, ludicrous. Why did the Doctor travel to Italy of the Renaissance period to meet Leonardo da Vinci? Through his encounter with Captain Tancredi he learns about Scaroth's experiments with time but his "This is a Fake" message to da Vinci proves futile afterwards. In the third part Romana and Duggan break into a closed cafe at night and discuss the situation and future plans. The question is: why? What was the point in breaking into the cafe? Those flaws in the plot and few others abate City of Death but don't detract it of course from its brilliance.
Elegant, original, very agreeable but with a somewhat flawed and pedantic storyline, City of Death ranks among the most classic moments of the series. It enjoyed unprecedently high ratings, averaging 14.5 million viewers, and attracted the attention of 16.1 million persons for the fourth episode: the biggest audience ever for a Doctor Who episode. Since the story offers us a visual tour in the French capital, I decided to end this review in French: Vive la Ville de Mort!
Grade: 8,5 or 9/10